My reverse bucket list

What’s on your travel bucket list? Volunteering in Africa, teaching English in Prague, eating pasta in Rome? We dream of the next adventure, the next achievement, the next thing… but what about reflecting on the life we have lived?

Here’s my reverse bucket list – my top 10 most unforgettable travel moments in Asia.

1. Watching sunrise over the Ganges in Varanasi, India’s oldest living city, with dolphins diving around our tiny boat and pilgrims descending on the water’s edge to begin their ritual morning dips.

2. Snuggling under a rug at dawn, surrounded by Tibetan monks chanting mantras to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, in Dharamsala.

3. Walking past an Indian slum during monsoon and seeing a mother and daughter leaving their poles-and-plastic home, with a puddle for carpet and mud for a bed, with grins on their faces, laughing together.

4. Sitting on a bus travelling to Ladakh, climbing the last peak to reach the Tibetan Plateau, and suddenly the Himalayan mountains are rising abruptly behind us and a vast desert is stretching out before us.

5. Lazing in the refreshing mint-green pool at Potato Head watching the sunset over Seminyak Beach in Bali.

6. Sitting in the open doorway of an Indian train, with the wind blowing in my face and camels galloping in the distance, crossing the deserts of Rajasthan.

7. Huddling in a sleeping bag around an open fire with a Nepalese family, drinking hot pepper chai, with a blizzard raging outside and Mount Everest in the distance.

8. Singing on a hill-top on Gili Trawangon, with Indonesian men playing guitar, admiring the view of Gili Air and Gili Meno forming stepping stones in an expanse of turquoise sea to the lush coastline of Lombok.

9. Meeting the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala and being awe-struck by the presence of this physically tiny man with a beaming smile and an immense glow, as if lit up from the inside.

10. Dancing in a sari at my future brother-in-law’s wedding, in the remote village of a Himalayan hill tribe, surrounded by the picturesque snow-covered mountains of Nepal, seemingly so close you could reach out and touch them.

Eat, pray, love Bali

I visited Bali last year for the first time in two decades. I travelled with my new partner (at the time) and our four teenagers (one mine, three his). It was wonderful to escape the bleak Melbourne winter in June for 10 days of tropical heat.

Bali has changed in some surprising ways during the last 20 years. One delightful change is how the dogs are treated now. When I was there in 1993, sick mangy dogs were everywhere. Now the Balinese care for them as pets. We’d go for an early walk along Seminyak Beach before the kids woke up and it was reminiscent of Australia, the sand dotted with owners and dogs enjoying a morning walk.

I understand this significant change is due to the hard work of I Love Bali Dogs.

As a typical Melburnian (read: coffee connoisseur) I was pleased to discover you can now get a decent flat white! Last time only Balinese coffee was available – strong, granular, black coffee in a glass. If you asked for milk, you got sweetened condensed milk floating on the top. Now virtually every cafe has a coffee machine and the quality is (gulp) almost as good as Melbourne.

I was also surprised by the absence of Bali belly. You couldn’t drink fruit juice or eat salads outside five-star hotels 20 years ago. Now you can eat fresh food without fear – purified water is used everywhere. The variety of cuisine is amazing. We ate beautiful food every night, but one of the more memorable venues was Biku Restaurant. With its book store, antiques and beautiful cake selection, it seemed more fitting of France than Bali. But the down-side of all this international cuisine? I only found Gado Gado, my favourite traditional Indonesian meal, at one cafe in Seminyak.

The shopping in Seminyak is famous, but clothes that translate into Melbourne attire are limited and expensive. I did buy a cute black-and-white shift dress from Mister Zimi that I wear often with tights and boots. I also bought some high-quality silver jewellery from Kapal-Laut.

We spent a week in Seminyak and three days in Ubud, with a road trip every other day to explore the island. We visited the Bukit Peninsula starting at Ulu Watu – Padang Padang and Balangan Beach are both lovely – and ending with fresh seafood at Jimbaran Bay. We went to Elephant Safari Park Taro (highly recommended) and caught a boat to Nusa Lembongan, spending the day swimming at beautiful Mushroom Bay. Ubud has grown tremendously in 20 years, but has retained its charm and I would have liked to spend more time there.

But the ultimate highlight for all of us? Potato Head Beach Club. It was so good, we went twice. Picture this … lazing in an eternity pool overlooking Seminyak Beach all afternoon, watching the sunset from a pool-side lounge bed while sipping mocktails, then eating dinner at one of three international restaurants. This is the Bali experience of your holiday dreams. Simply perfect.

Bring on 2013

As the sun slowly sets on 2012, I’m taking a little time to reflect on the year that has been. If I had to sum it up on one word, it would be BIG! It has been a year of massive highs and one extreme low for me. You can’t have one without the other, right?

Let’s start with the highlights …

  • In April, I finally went to Europe after wanting to go my whole life. I attended the 2012 International Social Media and PR Summit in Amsterdam and visited Brussels, London and Paris. The trip was even more wonderful than I’d imagined. Read about my springtime in Paris. I’m now planning my next European adventure to Spain and Italy in 2014. 
  • In June, I celebrated five years of sobriety – a significant milestone and a proud achievement.
  • In July, I got promoted to what is now my dream job. Social Media Manager = awesome opportunity. Read about my new role – and why I love it.
  • In August, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Social Media Marketing in Tertiary Education conference in February 2013. This will be the first time I’ve presented at a major conference. Two years ago I would have said no way, such was my terror of public speaking. Today I see it as a great opportunity to grow personally and professionally. Wish me luck!
  • In September, my beautiful boy turned sweet 16.

And now for the low … in October, my partner of four years and I broke off our engagement and separated. I turned 40. He moved overseas and I flew to Perth on the same day in December. It was a very sad Christmas for both of us. 

But with 2013 only three sleeps away, it’s time to focus on the future. My son will complete Year 12 in 2013 – and I’ll finish paying private school fees. My mothering role is changing every day as my son becomes an amazing young adult. I have more freedom to imagine a different life for myself. I’m getting new ideas about what I might like to study and a website I hope to develop. I want to travel more and learn another language.

So maybe life really does begin at 40. I’ll drink – ginger beer – to that. Happy new year to you and I hope it’s a truly fabulous one.

Pont Neuf, Paris

My springtime in Paris

I’ve been meaning to write about Paris for months. However, I should warn you, it will be difficult for me to write about the most romantic city in the world without sounding effusive.

Paris was as wonderful as I imagined – and then some. Everything the French do, they do beautifully. The architecture, the art galleries, the art itself. It wasn’t until I visited Paris that I realised my favourite painters are French – I’ve always loved Monet and Degas. The art galleries in Paris are truly works of art.

The colours are soft in Paris, with beige stone buildings complementing the deep green of the Seine. Everything is lovely – except the subway. The Metropolitan signs are so garish and dated you can’t imagine how they can exist in modern Paris.

And the food is spectacular. The fruit is fresh, unlike our transported variety, the sweet strawberries and juicy pears were heavenly. There were gorgeous delicatessen lining the streets behind my apartment, where I would stop after a day of sightseeing and pick up my evening meal. Baguette, cheese and fruit followed by a delicious sweet cake. I wrote French words in my notebook so I could speak with the shopkeepers. The French are most gracious when you at least attempt to speak their language.

I rented an apartment through Air B&B across the road from Pont Neuf  (the oldest bridge in Paris but ironically called ‘new bridge’) and it was wonderful. I felt like a Parisian local stepping out of my apartment every morning. I’d eat breakfast in the morning and then head out for the day. I was suddenly a morning person in Paris, which ordinarily I am not. However, it should be noted, Parisians are not morning people and the only shops open before 10am serve coffee and pastries.

The Louvre was a short walk away, past a couple of lovely cafés, a row of tacky souvenir shops and you were there. I visited the Louvre three times during my five days in Paris – once to see the Mona Lisa and then simply to wander and lose myself in the history, the beauty and the art. It really is a treasure for the world.

My top tip if you are visiting Paris is to get a Paris Museum Pass – it was 69 Euros for six days and worth every cent. The pass gives you free access to all the galleries and museums via an express entrance (the rooftop of Notre Dame was the only exception). The queues for tourist attractions in Europe are unbelievable – I was there in April, before peak season, and would have spent the better part of each day queuing without the pass.

I spent four days walking everywhere, absorbing Paris with a big grin on my face to finally be there – along the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe,  Jardin du Luxembourg, Montmartre and the islands. I ended up visiting the Eiffel Tower three times, catching a boat home one evening to watch the city of lights come to life.

The islands, Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Citie, are lovely and the best place to buy scarves. French women wear scarves like no other. Shopping in Paris is expensive but the quality is beautiful. Galeries Lafayette is worth visiting simply for the architecture, if not the shopping.

And then on the fifth day there was Versailles. The gardens in Paris are exquisite, but Versailles is truly remarkable. Perfectly majestic, complete with piped classical music playing across the manicured hedges, blooming flowers and sculptured fountains. Riding around the magnificent water gardens on a bicycle on a perfect spring day is a memory I will always treasure.

Paris is now my favourite city in the whole world. But then again, I still have so much more of Europe to see.

Bon voyage

In three weeks I will board a plane to Germany. During my time in Europe I will stay in Amsterdam, lunch in Brussels, visit London and explore Paris. This trip is a dream come true for me. I hope to post a blog about each country – probably not while I’m travelling, but in the months ahead.

So, fasten your seat belt and prepare to travel vicariously. I haven’t been overseas in more than 10 years and I’m turning 40 this year, so I’m beyond excited to be traveling again.

I have many wonderful memories of traveling in Australia – sharing a lagoon with a large green turtle while diving on the Great Barrier Reef and swimming in crystal clear pools high on a ridge in Kakadu National Park, just to name two.

But to celebrate my next adventure, here’s my reverse bucket list – my top 10 unforgettable international travel moments to-date.

1. Watching sunrise over the Ganges in Varanasi, India’s oldest city, with dolphins diving around the boat and pilgrims descending on the water’s edge to begin their ritual morning dips.

2. Walking past an Indian slum during monsoon and seeing a mother and daughter coming out of their poles-and-plastic home, with a puddle for a carpet and mud for a couch, with grins on their faces, laughing together.

3. Snuggling up under a rug cross-legged at dawn in Dharamsala, surrounded by a sea of Tibetan monks chanting mantras to honour Buddha’s birthday.

4. Sitting in the open doorway of an Indian train, with the wind blowing in my face and camels galloping in the distance, crossing the deserts of Rajasthan.

5. Huddling in a sleeping bag around an open fire with a Nepalese family, drinking hot chai, with a blizzard raging outside and Mount Everest in the distance.

6. Stepping out of my lake-side cabin, in the early heat of the tropical morning, to dive into the cool, pristine waters of Lake Toba in Sumatra.

7. Being on a bus on the second highest motor-able road in the world and climbing a peak to reach the Tibetan Plateau, with the rugged mountains rising abruptly behind us and the vast desert stretching out before us.

8. Singing on a hill-top on Gili Trawangon, with young Indonesian men playing Bob Marley riffs on their guitars, with Gili Air and Gili Meno forming stepping stones in an expanse of turquoise sea to the lush coastline of Lombok.

9. Dancing in a sari at my future husband’s brother’s wedding, in the remote village of a Himalayan hill tribe, surrounded by the picturesque snow-covered mountains of Nepal, seemingly so close you could reach out and touch them.

10. Meeting the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala and being awe-struck by the presence of this physically tiny man with a beaming smile and an immense glow, as if lit up from the inside.

What are your favourite travelling memories?

London calling

I went to Europe with my mum and her best friend when I was three years old. I have five memories of that trip: the entrance to one room in the Tower of London, the house where we stayed in London, a street in Italy, a roadside in Germany and the grey of Buckingham Palace.

They are like very short films – snapshots of strange moments in time.

And now, on the eve of my 40th birthday, I am finally going back to Europe. I have wanted to go since I was a teenager. After I left home at 17 I was a traveler. I’ve lived in Byron Bay, Sydney, far north Queensland, India, Fremantle, Darwin and now Melbourne. I’ve been to Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand. But I didn’t make it to Europe. My one-way ticket to London via Delhi in 1995 became a return flight to Australia to get married.

And with the birth of my son in 1996, my traveling abruptly ended and my career journey began. I have spent the past 15 years studying and working to build a successful career in communications and provide my son with the best education I could. But high quality education comes at a price and I haven’t needed a passport for more than a decade. With my son now in Year 11, the time to dust off my backpack is coming soon. In fact, out of the blue, it has just arrived.

I am attending the 2012 International Social Media and PR Summit in Amsterdam on April 11 and 12. The speakers are brilliant – Carla Buzasi, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post UK, and Stephanie L. Schierholz, NASA’s social media manager,  just to name two.

I wouldn’t know about this conference if not for social media. It is being organised by @PRDaily, based in the US, and has reached me in Melbourne through twitter. This is no surprise. Such is the  power of digital PR. I follow @MarkRaganCEO and not only does he tweet great content, he also took the time to comment in my blog. My registration is evidence that interaction is indeed the key to consumer engagement through social media.

It is also no surprise that my dream trip to Europe has come through my career. Maybe it is reward for all the hard work I have undertaken in the past and continue to undertake every day. I am incredibly grateful to have a manager who values my work and is prepared to invest in me. And I’m taking a little of my own time to visit London and Paris… again.  Bon voyage! 

You are worth a rest

I am on my first real holiday in years. A holiday where the beach is the only destination on the itinerary. A holiday where reading is for pleasure only (I’m thoroughly enjoying Ita Buttrose’s autobiography A Passionate Life). A holiday where afternoon naps are perfectly acceptable and, yes, I have actually taken one.

We’re visiting my hometown of Margaret River. The region is a wonderful part of the world, but has been terribly affected by recent bush fires. My son is with me but he is 15 now, so I no longer have to spend my entire holiday creating appropriate children’s entertainment.

So, I’ve lazed around at the beach every day. I’ve caught up with old school friends. I’ve splurged on two blissful full body massages and received a divine facial. We head back to Melbourne in a few days and I’m ready for another year of work. I feel inspired again.

I love my work, my career gives me tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment. But I’m not good at work-life balance. I’m not good at switching off. I’m not good at making time for down-time. I’m always go, go, go. Setting goals. Achieving stuff. This year has been busy, successful and satisfying. But by the end of 2011, I felt utterly exhausted. My tolerance for other people was low. My creative fire was barely a flicker. I simply needed a rest.

And after two weeks of beach therapy, I feel relaxed, refreshed and recharged. I’m looking forward to going back to work, rather than dreading it. Rest is so important. I am determined to remember this simple fact. Why is it so easy for us to forget the importance of taking rest?

We are staying at my mum’s house and she has a wonderful cartoon by Michael Leunig stuck to her fridge. I couldn’t find the cartoon online but I did find the text – it is below for you to enjoy. I hope you are taking the time to rest this Christmas and best wishes for 2012.

The Curly-Pyjama Letters by Michael Leunig    

(From Mr. Curly to Vasco Pyjama)

Dear Vasco, in response to your question, “What is worth doing and what is worth having?” I would like to say simply this. It is worth doing nothing and having a rest; in spite of all the difficulty it may cause you must rest Vasco – otherwise you will become RESTLESS!
I believe the world is sick with exhaustion and dying of restlessness. While it is true that periods of weariness help the spirit to grow, the prolonged ongoing state of fatigue to which our world seems to be rapidly adopting is ultimately soul destroying as well as earth destroying. The ecology of evil flourishes and love cannot take root in this sad situation. Tiredness is one of our strongest, most noble and instructive feelings. It is an important aspect of our CONSCIENCE and must be heeded or else we will not survive.
When you are tired you must HAVE that feeling and you must act upon it sensibly – you MUST rest like the trees and animals do. Yet tiredness has become a matter of shame! This is a dangerous development. Tiredness has become the most suppressed feeling in the world. Everywhere we see people overcoming their exhaustion and pushing on with intensity—cultivating the great mass mania which all around is making life so hard and ugly—so cruel and meaningless—so utterly graceless—and being congratulated for overcoming it and pushing it deep down inside themselves as if it were a virtue to do this. And of course Vasco, you know what happens when such strong and natural feelings are denied—they turn into the most powerful and bitter poisons with dreadful consequences. We live in a world of these consequences and then wonder why we are so unhappy.
So I gently urge you Vasco, do as we do in Curly Flat—learn to curl up and rest—feel your noble tiredness—learn about it and make a generous place for it in your life and enjoyment will surely follow. I repeat: it’s worth doing nothing and having a rest.
Yours sleepily, Mr. Curly xxx

Epiphany from the edge

People often ask me how I got into writing. So, at the expense of my autobiography, I’m going to share the story with you.

In 1995, I undertook a one year journey to Nepal and India to ‘find myself.’ I was 22 years old. Oh, and I’d met a Nepalese boy in Sydney I’d decided was my future husband.

I arrived in Kathmandu in March, alone, to rising heat and haze. Nepal was like a fairytale – so exotic, so old, so colourful. I felt alive. I went trekking near Mount Everest for a week. Walked for miles through mountains stripped bare from deforestation. Navigated winding paths along cliff edges through thigh-deep snow. Slept huddled with Nepalese families around open fires. Came face-to-face with poverty.

Then I caught a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara. We stopped along the way and – against my better judgement – I ate some curry from a roadside stall. BIG MISTAKE. By the time we reached Pokhara I had a raging temperature. I found a backpackers and a toilet fast. The next five days were a blur of fever, pain, toilet and bed.

Prior to leaving New Zealand, my late grandmother had made me promise I wouldn’t visit Indian doctors. She was a nurse and was worried I’d be prescribed medications banned in the West. But there were no Western doctors in Pokhara. And after five days it dawned on me that people die from dysentery. I went to a local doctor who gave me a packet of huge pale blue tablets and told me to come again the next day. The effect of the tablets was like pouring concrete on my insides. I began to crawl out of the twilight zone.

Pokhara has a large picturesque lake, one you might expect to see in Switzerland. It is surrounded by huge snow capped mountains and, in April, the weather is very warm. I lay in a sunbed by the lake recovering, in that surreal state between awake and asleep. Or was it between life and death? It was hard to tell.

In my obscure state of the next few days, I watched a man sailing a yacht carrying tourists. There was only one yacht on the lake. I couldn’t tell how old the man was. He was wiry, sunbaked and only wore white shorts. And I started wondering about this man’s life. Who are his family? What are his hopes, his fears, his dreams? Where did he get his little yacht? How long has he been doing this? WHO IS HE? I really wanted to know. And I really wanted to tell his story.

So, by this lake on the roof of the world, I decided I wanted to inspire others by sharing the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Like my Nepalese sailor. Although, sadly, I never did share his story. But I shared many others.

And that Nepalese boy I met in Sydney? He actually was my future husband. And the father of my child. But that’s another story.

The road less travelled to Ngukurr

In September 2010, I was very fortunate to be offered a freelance writing and photography assignment with the Northern Territory Government.

The job involved travelling to the remote Indigenous community of Ngukurr, located in south-east Arnhem Land. I would stay at Ngukurr for two days and cover the Futures Forum, part of the inaugural Yugul Mungi festival. I snapped up the opportunity.

Before I left, Darwin locals who had experienced remote Territory communities warned me about Ngukurr. “There will be rubbish everywhere”, “don’t touch anything, it will have human s**t on it” and “don’t walk around at night, it won’t be safe,” they told me. But other people told me it was fine and “one of the good ones.”

It was with some trepidation that I boarded the plane. This could be a tough assignment. I mentally prepared for the worst.

Ngukurr is part of the Yugul Mungi region, located on the Roper River in the lower Gulf of Carpentaria. The region is home to about 2500 people. The Roper region is hilly and lush – thanks largely to its namesake river. The views from Ngukurr across the wilderness of Arnhem Land are stunning. The Roper River is incredibly pristine – it is literally the cleanest waterway I have ever seen. Cruising down her in a boat was the most peaceful I have felt in a very long time.

Set in this beautiful untouched landscape is Ngukurr. And what I found was a clean and friendly township – albeit ramshackle in parts. It is a dry community and appears to have excellent leadership. The locals are shy and gentle but also proud and strong. The children seem healthy and relaxed. And there was less rubbish lying around than in suburban Darwin.

But I did see some surprising sights. A house with a cottage garden complete with rose bushes. Cigarettes being sold for $30 a packet at the general store. A village donkey. The community pool closed during the festival despite the heat – because even in sweltering outback towns Territorians think it’s too cold to swim in the dry season.

I know the community was on its best behaviour with their town on show, but my Ngukurr experience really shifted my perception of remote communities. I had only heard the negatives – the violence, the chaos, the rubbish. Take away alcohol and add a rubbish collection service and things can look very different indeed.